In 1934, Ernest Hemingway was the reigning king of American letters. Just back from safari in Africa, where he'd shot rhinos and giant kudu, he seemed to be on top of the world.
The first thing he did after returning from safari was head to the Wheeler shipyard in Brooklyn, N.Y., and buy a 38-foot fishing boat he named Pilar.
Pilar would be Hemingway's refuge for the rest of his life, a place to escape from bad reviews and broken relationships. It's also the inspiration for a new book about the author, Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.
Its author, Paul Hendrickson, tells Rachel Martin, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he didn't want to replicate what had already been done in the many previous Hemingway biographies.
"Emily Dickinson has a wonderful line," he says. "'Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.' So I think from the beginning I needed to kind of find a slant way to come at the story of Ernest Hemingway."
Hendrickson is not new to the study of Hemingway. In the 1980s, he'd interviewed the writer's famously troubled sons for a newspaper series.
"Each of them talked longingly and lovingly about their father's fishing boat, Pilar," he says.
Eventually, Hendrickson discovered a note he'd written to himself in an old journal: "If you can learn everything that happened on that boat, you'll get his entire life."
Hemingway is often pegged as a great writer, but a vile human being. But Hendrickson says he discovered another side to the man on board Pilar.
"He could be everything on that boat, he could be a boor and a bully and an overly competitive jerk, and he could save somebody who was in the water swimming from shark attack on that boat, and he could treat people with uncommon kindness on that boat," Hendrickson says, "and I think it began to occur to me, that someone who could write this beautifully, there must be cores of fundamental decency."
RACHEL MARTIN, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
Writer Paul Hendrickson went to Havana for a lot of reasons: to set foot on forbidden soil, to smoke a real Cohiba cigar, to catch a ride in a vintage Studebaker taxi, but mostly because he wanted to see Ernest Hemingway's famous fishing boat Pilar.
PAUL HENDRICKSON: She was sitting up on concrete blocks like some old and gasping browned-out whale maybe a hundred yards from Hemingway's house under a kind of gigantic carport with a corrugated plastic roof on what was once his tennis court just down from the now-drained pool where Ava Gardner had reputedly swung nude. Even in her diminished, dry docked, parts plundered state, I knew Pilar would be beautiful, and she was.
MARTIN: Pilar was the one constant in Hemingway's life. Wherever he was in the world, he always came back to his boat and his dreams of chasing giant blue marlin through the Gulf Stream. Hendrickson chronicles the relationship between Hemingway and Pilar in his new book. It's called "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost 1934-1961." And he joins me now. Paul Hendrickson, welcome to the show.
HENDRICKSON: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Of course. So there you are. You're standing in front of this old boat and you describe it in the book as, quote, "beached grime-coated and time-stunned in the Cuban sun." What about this boat made you think this is it? This is the fulcrum around which I am going to write what has never been written about Ernest Hemingway?
HENDRICKSON: Well, it was such a challenge to take on Hemingway in the first place because so many books have been written about him. I knew I did not want to do a, quote, "conventional biography." I'm not sure I'm even capable of doing those.
Emily Dickinson has a wonderful line that starts a poem, tell all the truth but tell it slant. So I think from the beginning, I needed to kind of find a slant way to come at the story of Ernest Hemingway.
And many years ago, when I was a Washington Post reporter, I interviewed Hemingway's sons and each of them talked longingly and lovingly about their father's fishing boat Pilar. And then at some point later, I read Hemingway's letters and you see everywhere the mention of Pilar. So one way or another, Rachel, Pilar began to penetrate my consciousness, I guess you could say, as a possible narrative device, a storytelling vehicle. If you can learn everything that happened on that boat, you'll get his entire life.
MARTIN: Hemingway bought this boat in 1934.
MARTIN: Where was he in his career at that point?
HENDRICKSON: That's a great question. You could say he was the reigning monarch of American letters. Everything - one of the ways to read Ernest Hemingway's life is that he learned everything so quickly and early, and fame came to him so quickly. It is true, Rachel, that by the middle '30s, by the time he got this boat, the critics were beginning some serious sniping, but he was still the reigning monarch of letters.
And right at the point he gets this boat, he has just returned from Safari in East Africa. And rather than write a novel, he writes a book called "Green Hills of Africa," which has wonderful landscape painting in it but which the critics did not like. And the critics I think sort of began to really turn there. You know, a lot of people would say that from the mid-'30s on, it was downhill for Ernest Hemingway. I don't see it that way.
MARTIN: What did he want from that boat?
HENDRICKSON: I think he wanted escape. I think he wanted to get away from shore. In fact, I make a case in this book that Pilar helped broaden out, so to speak, his prose line. When you say Ernest Hemingway, what do you think? You think of these simple declarative sentences, these magical and yet very short sentences free of the subordinate clause. What happens, Rachel, from the mid-'30s onward, the Ernest Hemingway sentence gets longer and longer and longer. Why is this?
I like to make a case that aboard Pilar, getting away from shore, getting away from the sniping critics, getting away from all the petty little literary games, he can get out there in the Gulf Stream and he can free himself in some ways. So Pilar was taking him out there where you don't necessarily see shoreline.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Paul Hendrickson. His new book is "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost 1934-1961."
You talk about these two sides to his personality. I mean, a lot of people who were on that boat, and there were a lot of them, friends and relatives, people who just wanted to be around Hemingway, celebrities. You know, he wasn't such a nice guy a lot of the time, as you point out, but he showed these folks a kinder side of himself. Was that because he was in his sanctuary on the boat?
HENDRICKSON: You know, a boat is kind of a controlled environment, although, you know, he started out as a fly fisherman on trout streams, but he needed a bigger body of water where storms might come up that you cannot control and where fish that are 150 times the size of a beautiful little rainbow trout that he needed to match himself against.
Look, he could be everything on that boat. He could be a boor and a bully and an overly competitive jerk, and he could save somebody who was in the water swimming from shark attack on that boat, and he could treat people with uncommon kindness on that boat. He could write achy, generous, uplifting poetic letters on that boat, and he could write letters that were the absolute opposite. And I think it began to occur to me that someone who could write this beautifully, there must be cores of fundamental decency.
Rachel, I had the opposite experience of many biographers. The more I studied him, the more compassionate I began to feel about him. And this will sound possibly naive to your listeners and very un-post modern, but the more I looked at the life of Ernest Hemingway, the more I felt that here was a man who, in some ways, wished for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and who found a way to defeat himself of that high lofty aim at nearly every turn.
And why? I don't have the answers why. I don't think we'll ever get to the bottom of Ernest Hemingway, and this is why we'll keep reading him deep into the 21st century, why he's relevant now.
MARTIN: That's author Paul Hendrickson. His new book is "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost 1934-1961." Paul, thanks so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.
HENDRICKSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.